The Sheep Look Up

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The Sheep Look Up
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorJohn Brunner (novelist)
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreScience fiction, Dystopian
PublisherHarper & Row
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
LC ClassPZ4.B89 Sh PR6052.R8

The Sheep Look Up is a science fiction novel by British author John Brunner, first published in 1972. The novel is decidedly dystopian; the book deals with the deterioration of the environment in the United States. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972.

The novel is the third in Brunner's "Club of Rome Quartet", each novel dealing with a separate social issue. The Sheep Look Up explores a future dystopia occurring as a result of rampant consumerism and pollution. It follows 1968's Stand on Zanzibar (overpopulation) and 1969's The Jagged Orbit (racial tension and violence), and precedes 1975's The Shockwave Rider (technology and future shock).


The novel takes place in an unspecified year in the near-future (at one point said to be in the 1980s, roughly a decade after the novel's publication). Human activities have resulted in wholesale destruction of the environment.

Water pollution is so severe that "don't drink" notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can't go outside without wearing air masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don't get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains.

Coastal waters are mostly covered by a stinky, oily film made up of sewage, detergents, industrial effluent, and cellulose microfibers. The Mediterranean Sea is poisoned beyond recovery, leading to war, famine, and civil unrest in the surrounding countries. The Baltic, Great Lakes, and Caspian are also described as being poisoned. The use of defoliants and herbicides leads to the Mekong Delta becoming a desert. The heavy use of chemicals has made large swathes of farmland unsuitable for growing anything, resulting in higher food prices.

Many animal species and surface sea fish are on the brink of extinction, while birds are not as common as before, the Bald Eagle having gone extinct. Overuse of antibiotics has made a host of bacteria resistant and infectious disease is rampant. Household pests have also grown resistant to pesticides and a new type of agricultural pest, known as Jigras, causes food shortages.

The right wing government is indifferent to these problems. The President, known as Prexy, can only offer snappy quotes in response to various disasters. When poisonings and famine become rampant, the government scapegoats Honduran communist rebels and puts the country under martial law. They resort to violence and oppression to silence their critics.

References are made to attempts to rein in the environmental destruction, but they are depicted as having made no difference to the state of the environment. Even so, one Republican Senator claims that these regulations are destroying American business.

Crime, racial and civil unrest is growing. Travel abroad is discouraged because of terrorist attacks on planes, while fewer and fewer people graduate with science, engineering, or business management degrees, as agriculture and food-related degrees are most in-demand and most likely to lead to emigration from the U.S.. The number of poor people is growing while the shrinking number of the wealthy enclose themselves in walled communities guarded by armed mercenaries.

The US is said to be involved in various foreign wars, similar to Vietnam, which was ongoing when the book was published. A conflict in Honduras is hampered first by American soldiers coming down with enteritis and then by the need to crack down on violence in the United States. Many young men flee the draft.

A growing group of environmentally-conscious activists calling themselves "Trainites" – from their hidden leader Austin Train – turn slowly to terrorist acts in an attempt to stop the corporations from spoiling the Earth. The character of Austin Train is an academic who, despite predicting and interpreting social change, has become disillusioned by society's failure to listen; this character is used to drive the plot, as well as to explain the background story to the reader.

Plot Summary[edit]

"The Sheep Look Up" takes place over the course of a single year, with each chapter depicting one month. The story is a multi-strand one, involving a variety of characters whose paths only cross as the world's ecological disaster brings them together.


The novel starts with a man running across the Santa Monica Freeway in a bizarre incident before getting killed when he is hit by a car. The accident and the ensuing traffic jam results in Philip Mason, a Denver-based executive at the Angel City insurance company, being late for a meeting. The head of the insurance company says that they are having to increase life insurance premiums due to declining life expectancy in the United States. Peg Mankiewicz, a journalist, identifies the body of the man in the freeway accident as her friend Decimus Jones. Later, Peg meets with her friend and influential ecologist, Austin Train, from whom the Trainites take their name. He has gone underground and is working as a mall Santa, Peg is one of the few people able to contact him. In Honduras, a group of UN investigators are looking into a famine in the civil war ridden nation. They examine a ruined coffee farm and discover mysterious wormlike insects filling the roots of the plants with holes. They are known as Jigras and are immune to every known insecticide. Jacob Bamberley, heir to an oil fortune and head of Bamberley Trust, a charitable institution that manufactures Nutripon, a hydroponically grown food product meant to provide relief in places afflicted by famine, gives his adopted son Hugh Pettingill a tour of the factory in Denver. Hugh is not impressed by his adoptive father's work. In Africa, in a village called Noshri, a nurse named Lucy Ramage is on hand to receive shipment of Nutripon when suddenly the villagers seem to go insane and start murdering each other. She is saved by UN soldiers who put down the riots.


A supersonic airliner flying over the Rockies causes an avalanche with its sonic boom that destroys a brand new ski resort in Towerhill, Colorado. A police officer named Pete Goddard becomes a hero after saving a group of children trapped in the snow from being crushed by a steel beam. Peg learns from an autopsy that Decimus had a psychedelic drug in his system. She knows he wasn't a drug user and decides to get to the bottom of it. Jacob, trying to debunk allegations that Nutripon was responsible for the violence at Noshri, is a guest on the Petronella Page show, a popular news show. The host forces him to eat a bowlful of it. Suddenly, a bomb threat forces the studio to be evacuated.


In Ireland, Doctor Michael Advowson is treating a young girl who injured her toe after playing on a farm that was being used as a garbage dump. A visitor informs him to report to the United Nations to help investigate the Noshri riots. Philip is diagnosed with Gonorrhea from a one-night stand in Las Vegas which he has exposed his wife to. Lucy finds herself in a mental hospital in England after she had been afflicted with the insanity that affected the people of Noshri. She describes the horrors of the riots. A similar occurrence happens in Honduras. Hugh runs away from home after confronting Jacob about his role in the Noshri disaster.


Peg and Decimus' sister Felice are driving to the Colorado commune that Decimus was a part of, known as the "wat", and pick up Hugh, whose car had broken down. At the wat, they meet Zena, Decimus' widow. They present the wat with a canister of imported earthworms. A Honduran man, from a boat on the heavily polluted Pacific, sets off balloons carrying napalm which cause death and destruction all over San Diego. Philip loses his job, the result of Angel City's woes from the Towerhill disaster. He is then drawn into a business scheme by his friend Alan Prosser, who runs a plumbing firm, to sell household water filters manufactured by the Mitsuyama Corporation of Japan. Alan wants to use Pete Goddard as their spokesman to take advantage of his hero status. Michael conducts an analysis of the Nutripon at Noshri and discovers it contained Ergot, a substance known to cause hallucinations and dementia. As he is flying to New York, Lucy happens to be on the same plane and tells him her theory that the food was intentionally poisoned in an attempt to weaken the governments of the third world countries to allow exploitation of their resources.


Gerry Thorne, an executive at Bamberley Trust, is at his home in the Caribbean talking to fellow executive Moses Greenbriar when he hears Moses' wife screaming. Gerry's wife, Nancy, who was out swimming, has been exposed to a nerve agent, dumped into sea by the military at the end of World War I, contained in barrels that periodically surface. She dies from the exposure and Gerry vows to get justice. Hugh is becoming accustomed to life at the wat. He starts smoking marijuana with another member of the Wat, Carl Travers, who is also Pete's brother. They wind up making love. In New York, Michael meets with Jacob to discuss potential poisoning of Nutripon. Jacob wants Michael to certify the plant's new safety equipment. During the meeting, a Trainite car bomb goes off and destroys the office. Mitsuyama sends Hideki Katsamura on a tour of the United States as the company launches their water filters. Throughout the journey, Katsamura is afflicted with diarrhea. He winds up being patient zero for an outbreak of acute enteritis that ravages the country. It is left unstated whether this was an intentional poisoning to increase water filter sales.


The enteritis epidemic hits America hard. 35 million people become infected. Many are unable to work, businesses are forced to run on skeleton crews and public services such as police, mass transit, and garbage collection are severely disrupted. At the wat, it is discovered that Felice's worms included Jigras, ruining the vegetable crop. The Jigras begin spreading across the nation, resulting in a dire food shortage. Jacob publicly swears to destroy his Nutripon inventory in a public relations exercise. Hugh and Carl, having left the wat and wanting to take more serious action for the environment, meet a man calling himself Austin Train, one of many imposters.


Michael arrives in Colorado to oversee the destruction of the Nutripon stocks. He meets some young people who want to eat what they think is poisoned food as they want to go insane. Michael tells them that the food is clean and when he tries to give some to prove it, he is arrested and a riot breaks out. The army uses laser cannons and 63 people die in the fighting, Michael included. Peg meets with Lucy and a man named Fernando Arriegas to discuss the Noshri incident. At gunpoint, they force Peg to eat contaminated Nutripon. She winds up tripping out and as that happens, mysterious men enter the hotel room and kill Lucy and Fernando. Thorne meets with Professor Quarrey and his wife to discuss whether he has a case against the state department for his wife's death. The conversation goes into Puritan Foods, a company claiming to sell uncontaminated food, and which is tied to an organized crime group called The Syndicate, but after careful analysis, Quarrey has found that Puritan is no better than regular food and that some of it must come from outside of North America as the continent doesn't have enough uncontaminated farm land to grow all the food they sell. They also discuss how the Jigras entered the United States. A worm importer in Texas passed them off as regular worms allowing them to get past inspection. As Thorne leaves, men show up at the apartment and kill him, Quarrey, and his wife.


Jacob is confronted by his wife Maud, who calls him a murderer for the poisonings of Noshri and Honduras. He angrily retreats to his study, where he eats a candy bar confiscated from one of his chronically ill children. He has an allergic reaction and falls out the window, dying. Trainites begin to resort to terrorism. They bomb gas stations, blow up a new highway interchange in Alabama, sabotage a lumber mill in Georgia, and murder loggers trying to cut down California's remaining redwood trees. Hugh, Carl, and the Austin Train impersonator they call Ossie, plot to kidnap Hector Bamberley, the son of Roland Bamberley and nephew of Jacob. Roland has become the West Coast distributor for Mitsuyama water filters, and they want to extort him into giving them away for free. Peg wakes up in a hospital and is questioned by a doctor, coerced by a federal agent, about her ties to Austin Train.


The Mitsuyama water filters are discovered to be faulty, clogging up constantly with bacteria. Alan Prosser faces ruin with having to replace them. In Colorado, there is a meeting of wat members from all over the country. They are discussing a report on Puritan Foods when suddenly a low flying aircraft firebombs the compound, killing many. Hugh and Carl's friend Kitty, who owns the apartment where they are living and keeping Hector, has sex with him. Peg convinces Austin, now working as a garbageman, to go public. He agrees after she says she can get him on the Petronella Page show. Page wants to "crucify" him, but she is won over to his cause. After a Major at a nuclear missile base in North Dakota suddenly goes crazy and almost murders his two kids, the government becomes convinced that the United States is under attack. Martial law begins to spread.


Hugh, Carl, and Ossie, worried about Hector's health and giving up hope that Roland will pay the ransom, let him go. Hector is ridden with all the diseases now common in urban slums, much to the disbelief of his wealthy father. Hector claims he was kidnapped by Austin Train, who is arrested while on the Petronella Page show. At Prosser's offices, an employee suddenly goes on a violent rampage, he is subdued by Alan's gun. But they can see this is not an isolated case, outside the office, Denver residents have gone insane, just like the villagers in Noshri. In the chaos, Philip is able to drive Pete home but once he gets to his apartment, his wife Denise reveals that their son Harold has viciously murdered his sister Jodie. Alan and his assistant Dorothy die after getting trapped in the company's warehouse which is set on fire.


The Masons are holed up in their apartment for days with the rotting corpse of their daughter. Eventually some soldiers arrive, informing them that they are the first living people they've found in the building. Philip's friend and regular doctor Doug McNeil reveals that Denver's water supply has been contaminated with Ergot. Philip is told that he is being called to active duty as a soldier to supervise cleanup from the rioting. Hugh wanders back to his home and finds out that Maud has gone insane. After falsely claiming he is reporting for duty, he is exposed and put on a work gang with other suspected Trainites. Peg comes across him and he reveals that Carl had given Decimus Jones a carton of Nutripon as a Christmas present, explaining why he suddenly ran across a freeway.


The United States is now on the brink of collapse. Ossie sets a bomb at a public building and then dies from fever and delirium. Philip is on patrol when another soldier accuses him of poisoning the water with his filters, and kills him. Pete surprises his pregnant wife Jeannie with a microwave oven. She uses it to cook a chicken but suddenly collapses. At the hospital, it is revealed that the microwave was shoddily built and radiation leaked out and cooked Jeannie's unborn infant in the uterus. One morning, Pete is discovered by Carl in the living room scribbling notes from a book, he says that he is learning how to make a bomb. Peg is covering Austin's trial. Hector quickly realizes that he wasn't kidnapped by the real Austin Train and reveals he had been coerced into saying he was. Austin takes the opportunity to make a speech at his heavily televised trial. He pleads that humanity stop destroying its environment. He also reveals the source of the Ergot poisonings: In 1963, the government stored drums of Ergot-based nerve gas in the mountains surrounding Denver. One day, just before Christmas, an injection induced earthquake caused the drum to rupture and leak its contents into the water table supplying the Nutripon factory, which contaminated the food it produced. Another one caused a much larger leak that poisoned all of Denver. As he finishes his speech, a cameraman informs him that the President has ordered the broadcast to cease. Ossie's bomb then detonates, presumably killing everyone in the courtroom. Tom Grey, an actuary at Angel City, had been throughout the novel, devising a computer simulation of earth to figure out a solution to earth's ecological problems. The ironic and morbidly humorous results are reported on the Petronella Page show. The final scene takes place in Ireland where a woman is letting a doctor into her home. She sees billowing plumes of smoke and suggests they call the fire department. The doctor responds, “The brigade would have a long way to go, it’s from America. The wind’s blowing that way.”

Next Year

The final chapter of the book is simply a few lines from John Milton's poem Lycidas from which the novel derives its title.

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread ...

Publication notes[edit]

Despite being nominated for a Nebula Award, the book fell out of print, only later being republished in 2003. The new edition contains a foreword by David Brin and an afterword by environmentalist and social change theorist James John Bell. Brin's foreword attempts to ground the book in Brunner's time, and in the context of his other writings.

In the afterword, Bell treats the book almost as prophecy, drawing parallels between events in the book and subsequent real-world developments: "His words have a kind of Gnostic power embedded in them that gives his characters passage into our world," and notes that "Brunner's puppet of a president, affectionately called Prexy, is a dead ringer for our Dubya".

Writer William Gibson made a similar remark in a 2007 interview:

No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel The Sheep Look Up, has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1] Archived December 1, 2020, at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]